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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Cheese Ham Shatner Stands Alone

The blog post title is a reference to the old nursery rhyme, but more immediately to a profile of William Shatner I read in The Washington Post while I was in graduate school, years ago. The occasion was his hosting of a Miss USA pageant, a job he got in part because he'd played a pageant host in some Sandra Bullock vehicle which I've never seen. This cross-over from virtual life to real life (and this was when Priceline was just getting big and before Denny Crane and Boston Legal and all that) prompted the author of the profile to declare--if I can remember it correctly; I can't find the article online--that Shatner was operating in a plane far beyond us all. Famous? More than just about anybody on the planet. Cheesy? Oh no--Wayne Newton is cheesy. A ham? Please--Tom Arnold is a ham. But Shatner...Shatner has transcended hammy parody, or cheesy nostalgia. He stands sovereign over the glory and wreckage of a post-irony world.

I'm put in mind of all this by a long Shatner profile in The New York Times from a few weeks back. I only just got around to reading it last night, and I absorbed it, fascinated by both the man and my own geeky fascination with him. Who is to say how it all happened? The Shatner phenomenon is the result of a perfect storm of the massification of popular culture, the technologically-enabled collapse of the distinction between art and entertainment and commerce and commentary, a generation or two of Americans both perpetually distracted yet delighted-with-minutia...and, of course, the key ingredient: an impossibly hard-working, hard-driving, shameless yet prideful man who was willing to take any job and tell any joke, and underneath whose constant, good-natured hustling, sometimes, a genuinely talented actor shines forth. Whole dissertations will be written on this man, I tell you. Mostly in English departments, granted, but still: whole dissertations.

My favorite Shatner moment, because so delightfully captures the commodified science-fiction milieu which provides the slight yet solid foundation of his fame, is this one. So obviously scripted down to the last gesture...and yet, you just can't quite make yourself believe that is.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Right On

What more is there to say? Though I don't think I'm as optimistic as he is...

(Hat tip: TPM)

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Hearing Wendell Berry

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

There are some folks that I know, through the fine blog Front Porch Republic, who are well-acquainted with Wendell Berry. They've been to his home, stayed up late telling jokes with him, discussed profound ideas in his presence, really gotten to know the man. I'm not one of them. My encounters with Berry have been entirely through his written works--until Saturday. That morning, I drove to Salina, KS, to attend The Land Institute's annual Prairie Festival, where Berry would be speaking. It was as crowded as the festival has ever been, but I managed to squeeze in close, so as to hear what Berry had to say. I never got to speak with him directly; there were too many others around him, all of whom clearly knew him better than I. But still, I managed to draw near and sit before (well, on a folding chair) a teacher whom I respect enormously. He taught, and I learned.

The occasion for Berry's presentation was the inauguration of a new lecture series at The Land Institute, a series focusing on "Restoration and Conservation," named in honor of Strachan Donnelley, a businessman, philanthropist, and conservationist who had founded the Center for Humans and Nature in Chicago. Berry, for his part, paid tribute to Donnelly by speaking entirely about that: the relationship of humans and nature--or better, of humans in nature, or of nature. Berry has never been, despite his long-standing support for many environmentalist or "green" arguments, an entirely comfortable fellow-traveler with environmentalism, at least not as a doctrinaire ideology; he's too much of a community-builder, and too much a believer in the virtues of husbandry, to starkly oppose human development in favor of the preservation of wildness, which is what too much environmental thought too often unfortunately falls into. But if one carries environmentalism beyond favored species, and includes within it the whole "biotic community" (or, as Aldo Leopold put, the "Land Community"), meaning the whole ecosystem which always begins with and returns to the fecundity and renewability of topsoil and the land generally, then speaking of humans as an essential component of the "environment" makes good sense.

But even there, still, one must be careful. Berry didn't want to talk about "the environment," though he mentioned it; he wanted to talk about the natural environment of Kentucky, the place he's knows best. He apologized for that to his mostly Kansas audience, but also defended his choice: it is our "duty," he claimed, to love our own states and places better than all others, but also to recognize that all others feel the same duty, and act accordingly. For him, this duty included giving due consideration to a book which he lovingly described and criticized for us: Kentucky's Natural Heritage, a book which he described as ambitiously, and wisely, attempting to tell a story of history and biodiversity at the same time. I have no idea if his belief that this book was "the first of its kind" is at all accurate, but the way he then related to us, over a period of 40 minutes, a "land-based" history of Kentucky--in which European and early American settlement, political and economic development, and government policies, were joined with discussions of waterways, the introduction and extinction of flora and fauna, and most particularly the devastation wrought my mountaintop-removal mining--was compelling enough to make me wish I could read a similar treatment of Kansas. (Or perhaps I have just such a book sitting on my shelf right now, waiting to be read...).

Berry's essential theme, or at least the theme which most essentially struck me, was one of knowledge. For example, Berry wanted to know why the black willows of Kentucky's river bottoms have been rapidly disappearing, and pointed out the terrible consequences--for soil erosion, for the health of river ecosystems--of both their disappearance, and of the fact that for so long no one was noticing they were disappearing. Why did so few attend to this ecological transformation? Berry didn't say...but he did make another comment from which one could easily discern his reasoning. He talked about independent, small- and mid-scale farmers as necessarily committed to the conservation of the natural environment, because without a well-functioning biotic community--and here he also spoke of it as "the community of creatures, living and dead," which is profoundly meaningful in both a spiritual and scientific sense--their vocations would be at an end. But when said vocations are co-opted by industrial agriculture, by the mantra of "get big or get out," with resulting consequences for land prices and the centralization of economic opportunities in cities, the result is an intensely conservative practice which finds its number of practitioners, and their wealth, rapidly shrinking. And in this case, Berry is nothing but a realist: "a minimal farming population, minimally paid, cannot be expected to be conservationists."

So how does that apply to black willows, or any other problem of knowledge regarding our disparate natural communities? Well, because--as Berry noted--the local knowledge imparted by their presence (or absence) was mostly the province of dedicated stream fishermen, the question becomes one of the conservation of their place in the ecosystem. And on that task Kentucky is failing; there are too few such fishermen left today, and those small numbers, working in restricted environments mostly overwhelmed by corporate pollutants or the tourist industry, haven't nearly the ability to play a "natural" role in observing what was going on around them. Thus does the human participant in the biotic community become removed from an effective, balancing, contributing role in it, with harms which result in exactly the same way that removing streams or species or whole hilltops (Berry referred to this horrible approach to mining as "original sin, round two") from the ecosystem may similarly harm all that remain.

I wonder how others would respond to Berry's approach to "knowledge," and the role which he believes local human knowledge can play, should play, but often doesn't play, in keeping the land community (which is all of us, in our respective places) healthy. On the one hand, Berry treats knowledge as something best recognized as limited, beyond our grasp, and therefore humbling: we should approach our ecosystem with a sense of our ignorance, and therefore approach cautiously most scientific, technological, or economic enterprises as a result. But on the other hand, it is, in fact, "knowledge" in the most common-sensical use of the term, that he speaks of: we have a need to know--to have real practical knowledge--about the soil, about the black willows, about all that begins with the solar power which is embedded through photosynthesis and decay in that which grows in the soil and that we thus consume. To treat that knowledge casually, or less than holistically, is a sin against the natural world. Yet it seems to me that a student of F.A. Hayek, or many other apostles of the unregulated market (including, to a limited degree, Adam Smith himself), would on the contrary argue that the knowledge which Berry speaks of isn't real, or isn't relevant, or isn't obtainable--not in the way he speaks of it, anyway. We can't know the actual "value" of the soil, or the black willow, or the mountaintop; we can only know (and this only indirectly, through the repeated operations of selling and buying) the flexible price of these goods, and thus their relative (and mostly after-the-fact) value to other operations (commercial fishing, riverside property development, coal production, "environmental" tourism, etc.). Ignorance, in this sense, isn't humbling, it is empowering: see how much we can do, even given all we don't know! There is no, or at least not very much, sustainability implied in such a model; it means something can be used up (and perhaps regretted, or expensively repaired later), because there is always something more--more oil, more energy, more willow trees, more land. Berry spoke of how used up Kentucky's biodiversity had become, and that while there is reason for hope--another lesson of the soil, which receives the seeds and gives them life, year after year: there is always hope--there is also much, much terrible work to be taken up by those who care about the damage which our willingness to allow economies to develop absent sufficient natural knowledge (and a humbling ignorance of such) has wrought.

Berry, like The Land Institute generally, thinks in terms of limits, and the need to know, value, and sustain the natural places we inhabit--including all those things we don't know about those places. This is a worldview that gets little hearing when the economic infrastructure is attuned entirely to growth, development, innovation, and "creative" destruction. Not much value placed is placed upon carefully tending to, exploring, being humbled by, and getting to know the natural history of a place. That, at least, I know from experience; teaching Wendell Berry, and his notions of limits, is no easy task. But before learning comes hearing, and I and several hundred others were able to hear him--this cranky, funny, insightful, stern, Kentucky prophet--on Saturday, and we're better for it. He's an old man now, but still at it, for which we should all be grateful. The more people hear him, the more hope for the local places and global health there will be.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Friday Morning Videos: "Day by Day"

Last week's return to "Don't Stand So Close to Me" gave me a brainwave: I've been doing this for going on two years now, and as best as I can tell, I've yet to put up even a single video by an artist whom I've already done once. Which is, if you think about it, crazy. I mean, there were a lot of bands and singers making videos during the height of the Friday Night Videos era, but not an endless number. If I keep at this, I'm going to have to start returning to some artists eventually...so why not start now?

Well, so be it: beginning today, and going until whenever I change my mind, I'm going to be putting up a different video by the same artist responsible for the video that I put up as near as possible exactly the year before. That should be doable. If I happened to have chosen a video by some one-hit wonder on any given week in the past, well, that just means I'll be able to find a new one for now. But so long as musicians and bands have more than one video to their credit, and I can find it online, I should be able to keep it going.

So, here we go. On Friday, September 25, 2009, I put up this rocking classic by The Hooters. This number isn't its equal--I can just barely remember it, to tell the truth--but it's a decent tune all the same. And hey, you can't say no to a mandolin.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

As I Look at the Stack of Papers Before Me...

...the first stack to be graded this semester, I feel sad. I miss an old friend. That friend was the "English language," which some of you may have heard of before. It passed away back in August, apparently. I've seen it around so rarely of late that I suppose I didn't realize until just now, as I limber up my red-pen hand, that it really was gone for good. Gene Weingarten, a long-time Washington Post reporter and columnist, has the story:

[English] succumbed last month at the age of 1,617 after a long illness. It is survived by an ignominiously diminished form of itself. The end came quietly on Aug. 21 on the letters page of The Washington Post. A reader castigated the newspaper for having written that Sasha Obama was the "youngest" daughter of the president and first lady, rather than their "younger" daughter. In so doing, however, the letter writer called the first couple the "Obama's." This, too, was published, constituting an illiterate proofreading of an illiterate criticism of an illiteracy. Moments later, already severely weakened, English died of shame...

It was not immediately clear to what degree the English language will be mourned, or if it will be mourned at all. In the United States, English has become increasingly irrelevant, particularly among young adults. Once the most popular major at the nation's leading colleges and universities, it now often trails more pragmatic disciplines, such as economics, politics, government, and, ironically, "communications," which increasingly involves learning to write mobile-device-friendly ads for products like Cheez Doodles.

Many people interviewed for this obituary appeared unmoved by the news, including Anthony Incognito of Crystal City, a typical man in the street.

"Between you and I," he said, "I could care less."

Ah well. Life goes on. Time to start grading. First person to misspell Aristotle wins.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Happy 추석 (Chu'seok)!

As this year's harvest festival (call it Sukkot, call it what you will) comes to close, let me post a tribute to my favorite variation upon it: Chu'seok, the Korean Thanksgiving. Readers of this blog are well aware of my affection for holidays. They're important, they're fun, they're excellent building blocks for family and community traditions...and most especially, they provide the opportunity for some wonderful meals. Chu'seok is no different. I seek out Korean food because I fell in love with it while serving my church mission there; we go overboard on Chu'seok because it's the one day a year I'll probably be able to get all my family to eat it with me. We don't prepare the full, traditional meal, with song pyun (rice cakes) and the like; I'm not that enamored with every detail of the holiday. But we do make bulkogi (Korean barbecue beef), though we lack all the tools and ingredients to do in right. There are, of course, a lot of bulkogi recipes out there (like this one). But this is one that has served us well, as we've lived in places far distant from any Korean restaurants whatsoever (Wichita is slightly better on that score than many places we've lived...but only slightly). So, in honor of the holiday today, I'm documenting every step for you. Enjoy!

Assemble (note that this was for a double serving: 2 Asian pears, 6 garlic gloves, 4 carrots, 6 mushrooms, 3 small onions, 6 green onions, 8 tablespoons of soy sauce, 5 tablespoons of sugar, 2.5 pounds of thinly sliced beef (ribeye steak works best), and 4 tablespoons peanut oil. Plus, of course, your kimchee.

Peal and cut the pears into small chunks.

Do the same with the garlic gloves, slicing them thinly.

Place the pear chunks and garlic slices in a blender. Add the soy sauce, and 2 tablespoons of the peanut oil. Blend into a marinade.

Cut up the carrots, mushrooms, onions and green onions into thin, small strips.

Do the same with the meat. If you can't obtain meat cut this size (no more than 1/4-inch thick is my recommendation; usually the meat prepared for a milanesa will be the right size), then buy some ribeye, leave it in your freezer for an hour, and cut it yourself, against the grain.

Combine all the ingredients, plus the sugar; allow to stand, refrigerated, in a covered container for at least an hour, preferably up to 24 hours.

Fry it up! If you're lucky, you have the right sort of grill to cook the meat and its accoutrements properly. In Korea, and in the better Korean restaurants in America, this will be a small grill, either flat or curved like an upside-down bowl, which can cook the meat at your table. But if you don't have anything like that--and we don't--then use a wok, or some other frying pan. Use the remainder of the peanut oil to prepare the pan, and get it smoking hot before cooking. You want the vegetables to still be somewhat firm, so don't overcook.

Serve with rice, some spicy pepper paste if you're lucky enough to have some, kimchee, and lettuce leaves, in which you wrap up the bulkogi and sides before shoving it rudely and deliciously into your mouth. Oh, and plenty of water--because if done right, this is one hot dish.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Damon Linker's Religious Test

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

My friend Damon's new book, The Religious Test: Why We Must Question the Beliefs of Our Leaders, will be published later this month. It's already attracting attention (partly due to a well-placed précis of the book which Damon wrote for the Washington Post), and it should: it's an excellent book. It isn't so much a scholarly work that will fundamentally affect how people think about the history, nature, and role of religious belief in a liberal society like our own, but a thoughtful and scholarly work of argument, one that has the potential to orient much of our thinking about religious candidates for office and religious claims in public life generally. The thesis of the book, in a nutshell? Damon is a liberal, through and through, and he worries about what he sees as all the illiberal ways (some of which are easily recognized, but some of which are not) in which the American electorate, voters and parties and interest groups alike, often fail to ask the hard--even "religious"--questions of those who come before us, asking for a vote with one hand, while keeping their Bible (or Koran, or Book of Mormon) close by with the other.

I've talked about--and argued with--Damon's ideas several times before (full disclosure: Damon generously thanks myself and several other friends for many conversations we've had about these issues over the years); I don't think this review will go on as long as those earlier treatises did. Partly this is because there is too much in the book that I agree with, and I don't want to take away from that. Partly it's because the book chooses a half-dozen targets (separatist religious freedom, claims to divine authority, anti-intellectual and populist piety, the merger of patriotism with providential thinking, our lack of sexual consensus, and secular intolerance, plus a thought-provoking conclusion), any one of which could inspire lengthy philosophical engagements, and even I'm not verbose enough to take on all six. But mostly, I think, it's because in this book, far more than in his last one, Damon's overarching theory of how free societies should work is far more clear, and thus our (political) agreements and (philosophical) disagreements subject to far more concise expression. Damon's conception of freedom is a deeply and classically liberal one, the one of John Locke's Letter on Toleration and John Stuart Mill's On Liberty and--most crucially--Isaiah Berlin's "Two Concepts of Liberty." None of those works are ever cited by name in the book, and Berlin is the only one of those thinkers to which he gives more than just a passing reference--and in that case, while labeling Berlin's arguments about providential thinking "powerful criticism," he also notes his thorough "condescension" towards religion (pp. 131-132). This is a condescension which Damon manifestly does not share; he respects, even reveres, and in many ways (as those who know him well will testify) genuinely envies religious faith. But all that being said, he is still someone who ties his liberalism tightly to the imperative of a secular order: "liberalism in action," he writes, must involve a "politics without metaphysics...as much as possible," liberal politics must adopt "an idiom of metaphysical neutrality, taking no position for or against God--or for or against any particular views about God and what He might or might not want from human beings" (p. 145). Whether that describes Locke is debatable; whether it describes Mill is more likely; whether that describes Berlin is obvious--and more importantly all of them, to one degree or another, have helped build a notion of liberal freedom that presumes the sovereign individual, possessed of certain rights, capable (or perhaps tragically fated) of deciding upon, in the midst of a plurality of choices to which there are no clear or consistent answers, their own course in life. Such an individual, one logically and naturally concludes, is best conceived as free from, and will be best served by a political freedom from, any kind of metaphysically (as opposed to strictly utilitarian) public ordering. And therefore any presumption about the "rightness" of a particular form of such moral or religious ordering on the part of those who campaign for leadership over a liberal society must be subject to serious scrutiny, and possible disqualification.

What should the specifics of that scrutiny be? Nothing necessarily foundational, or absolute; Damon's liberalism is generally pragmatic as well--and, as I noted above, and has the final, sharp chapter of the book ("The Intolerance of the Freethinkers") makes obvious, he is not on any kind of anti-religious crusade, though no doubt many of his conservative critics will assume he is. He does make some missteps in his various arguments along these lines, I think. For example, when talking about the challenges which claims to incontestable apostolic and prophetic authority on the part of religious leaders and some candidates pose to the operation of our secular liberal order, he lumps certain varieties of evangelical Protestantism along with more clearly authoritarian religions like Catholicism and Mormonism, and trots out sociological and psychological survey data to support his concern that some evangelicals long for "strong father" figures in politics, capable of protecting "biblical principles of authority and hierarchy" and punishing sinners "with physical force"; this is troubling, because "liberalism...depends upon a citizenry habituated to respond skeptically...to the pronouncements of political authorities" (pp. 58, 63). But this is weak stuff; a five-minute Google search on the internet could probably turn up a dozen studies purporting to show how college professors and Obama-worshiping Youtube videos support supposedly skeptical secularists and progressives in their own ideological fixations and blinkeredness. But the truth is, such missteps are rare. Throughout the book as a whole, Damon generally is wise and careful in how he applies his liberal criteria. He acknowledges the value of making some flexible constitutional space for religious groups to pursue "alternative forms of dispute resolution" outside of the usual, rigorously secular court system, but he recognizes that part of why that is possible is because the arenas affected by such religious alternatives are localized, specific, and small; if the United States had the same large, ethnically homogeneous, and poor Muslim minorities as does the Netherlands and France, the question would probably have to be answered differently (pp.32-39). Similarly, Damon--being committed as he philosophically must be to the components of liberal, non-religious, civic-oriented public education--expresses real concerns about some forms of home and religious schooling, especially when such seems to inculcate a reactionary anti-intellectual and oppositional, illiberal agenda. Yet he insists that a free society grants parents the same right to pursue alternative schooling for their children as it does to separatist religious groups like the Amish to pursue alternative forms of citizenship (or non-citizenship), and calls upon schoolteachers and administrators--and those who seek to lead them--to exercise ideological restraint in how they deal with cultural or moral matters, and make the public schools friendlier to those with traditionalist religious views (pp. 44-54). Such reflections, and many others, don't necessarily suggest that life in Damon's ideal free society would be easy for those who are motivated by arguably illiberal religious beliefs, but they do suggest a essentially secular, yet pragmatically applied, religious test wouldn't be a catastrophe for such folks.

One of whom, it should be clear, would be me. So leaving aside my thoughts about the book's presentation and thesis as a whole, what do I think about Damon's argument as it comes up against my own Mormon faith, with its living prophet and apostles in Salt Lake City? What do I think of how he frames my faith, and other traditionalist faiths, philosophically?

Damon's a liberal: I'm not. I may be, to use some terminology from old posts of mine, a "liberal communitarian" or a "liberal Christian" (or Mormon, etc.), but as best as I can understand my own beliefs, I keep "liberal" in a secondary, adjectival role; I don't subscribe to the ideology as a whole. So when I look at religion, I don't conceive of it primarily in terms of beliefs which I, as an individual, accept and therefore consider binding; rather, I see it as one of several (often, it is true, conflicting) communities by and through which my sense of myself, and my sense of what I believe, is constituted. A secular or neutral liberal order, as Damon imagines it, is mostly something that has been stripped of metaphysical trappings, thus leaving the somehow "original" individual more unencumbered from orders that would align or arrange their decisions, especially decisions about faith. I don't think there is any such animal as a metaphysically stripped public square; there is always some form of ordering--even, yes, religious "establishing"--going on, because human beings, simply by speaking and thinking with and alongside one another, are engaged in acts of metaphysical invoking and constituting and ordering. This an argument that stretches from Aristotle to Arendt: politics occurs in meaningful spaces, spaces that make claims both natural and moral; they are meaningful, because the communal actions which make for political existence reveal them as such. (As an aside, note the democratic implications of this line of argument; it's much more obvious in Arendt than in Aristotle, but the presumption is clear throughout this particular historical argument: whether you call it participatory democracy or republicanism or popular sovereignty, it's something which sees moral power in the language and affection carried forward by the expressions and activities of a local or national community. The liberal order provides a solid governing structure for such conceptualizations, but it is not and probably never will be truly friendly to them...just as Damon, good liberal that he is, is not especially friendly to mass democracy.)

All of which is simply a long-winded way of saying that there is no separating religious or metaphysical beliefs and presumptions from the civil order; they are inexorable. But that is no reason not to be concerned about illiberal beliefs and presumptions; even if one rejects, as I do, the notion (a notion which I believe Damon and his bête noire the theocons both in distinct ways share) that modern life consists of a long, twilight struggle over public authority and what to fill up the public square with, and instead sees civic life as always representing and developing any number of (perhaps complementary, perhaps conflictual) metaphysical and constitutive claims, that still doesn't mean you can't have preferences for which sort of claims you'd rather win out. While I don't want Damon's imagined description of the liberal order as thoroughly secular to triumph (and doubt that it ever could, not so long as the actual politics of actual human beings are taken into consideration), I see the practical value and wisdom in it. Which is why I see the point of his criticisms of my church--or rather, I should, his concerns which the political implications of my church. There are some nits that I could pick with his account of the history and theology of Mormon beliefs in revelation and prophetic authority. For example, he fails to acknowledge that when, as he notes, Joseph Smith laid down the general principle that revelation was "forever evolving," and then quotes a later prophet--Joseph Fielding Smith--as stating that, for purposes of weighing the truthfulness of (and thus moderating) prophetic statements, the "official LDS scriptural texts should be used as 'the measuring yardsticks'" it actually isn't consistent for him to go back in time to a yet earlier prophet--Brigham Young--to prove JFS wrong (pp. 80-81). And there are some other mistakes as well. (For someone who has spent as much time around Mormons as Damon has, it was surprising to see him speak of the "King Follit Discourse," and get the official legal name of the church incorrect--pp. 73, 220). But in general, his point is a solid one: Mormons believe in a higher authority, that authority is not theologically or necessarily bound in any clear way to the liberal order, therefore Mormons pose real concerns for liberals. As I wrote once before in response an article Damon wrote about Mitt Romney's presidential candidacy to "Mormonism is not now, or at least not yet (or perhaps never will be), a religion that is capable of producing doctrinal parameters that can be perfectly matched with the epistemological presumptions of modern pluralism." So be it: Mormons are not Unitarian Universalists...and yes, that can, in different times and places (keeping in mind the same prudence and care which guides Damon's applications of his "religious tests" throughout the book), be a cause for genuine liberal concern.

But to pick up on point from above, such liberal concerns are not necessarily concerns about democracy. (They can be--again, the liberal order provides a marvelous structure for such things--and maybe even often are, but that isn't necessarily the case.) If one can shake oneself free of the liberal conceptualization of the public sphere as solely an arena in which individuals are to be studiously protected from all the various tyrannies which threaten them, whether political or customary or metaphysical (to bring Locke, Mill, and Berlin back into the mix), and instead see it as a mutually and continually constituting environment of individuals through, among other things, just such claims (or "tyrannies," if you must), then you might recognize the religious beliefs which individuals bring with themselves to that square as (potentially, at least; obviously there will always be particular legal or sociological factors at play) just another factor in the democratic game. To quote myself, this is how I talked about it, when discussing a long-running dispute in Utah politics over the Mormon church's involvement in buying up downtown property and turning it into a quasi-religious park (but of course, as with all things involving Salt Lake City, the issues soon developed far beyond that):

There was a time, in Utah as well as elsewhere throughout the country, when America’s religious establishments...felt little need to draw explicit lines, because the American people themselves were traditional enough and grounded enough in their local communities to feel little need to cross such lines in the first place. Such was the social environment of Utah, and much of the rest of America, half a century ago, during what might be considered the height of America’s mainline “civil religion"....The relative decline of those cultural establishments over the past decades has had many causes, but its primary result has been intense struggle over the meaning and bounds of the communities in which we live, including our national community. Mormons, no less than any other religious group, have become caught up in that struggle....[T]he LDS church no longer approaches that struggle theocratically, as its own divisive struggles with our de facto national establishment have mostly come to an end. What is at work in what both critics and supporters perceive as an energized and politically awakened LDS church thus is, for better or worse, basically just another instance of religiously based social activism, of the sort that has been often seen throughout America’s democratic history (abolitionism in the mid-19th century; temperance movements in the early 20th)....In the midst of all the sociological debate over why the liberation, diversification, and secularization of the public sphere has given rise to such a (from a liberal perspective) presumably fiercely moralistic backlash, one could just as easily employ Occam’s Razor, and see the events of the past three decades across America as having made it clear that the conventional and communal religious establishments of the past always did hold within themselves strong...moral presumptions, all of which have burst forth once the real costs and implications of living within different, less traditional establishments became clear.

I'm really not sure how much of this Damon would actually disagree with, or where he would locate his disagreements. In his chapter on the intractability of consensus on sexual matters (which is, really, the very best chapter in the book, smart and challenging in ways that are, when combined with a recent book I've read and a recent blog post from Noah Millman--whom Damon also thanks in the book--forcing me to rethink a lot of what I've said before about these issues), Damon, though he insists that liberalism introduces a "morality of rights" to replace a "morality of ends," and that the former, supposedly non-metaphysical option is superior to the latter, pretty straightforwardly acknowledges that "the...liberal state [is] perfectly willing to enforce traditionalism's morality of ultimate ends so long as there [is] overwhelming consensus...in favor of that morality." That would, of course, result in illiberal laws, but in the case of the long history of laws regarding divorce, abortion, sodomy, pornography and the like in the United States, those illiberal laws were perfectly legitimate. However, they were not a "reflection of the nation's Christian essence"; rather, they were "the political and legal expression of a historically contingent cultural consensus--a consensus that over the past several decades has (for various complicated reasons) broken down, leaving rancor and dissent in its wake" (pp. 147, 140).

I suppose, in the end, my political differences with Damon's fine book could be said to come down to how we think about that "rancor and dissent." Both of us acknowledge its existence, and both of us bemoan it--both of us recognize, I suppose, that such rancor and dissent doesn't add anything towards a healthy or happy democratic polity, especially with the threat of violence which often comes with it. For this reason, liberal structures which protect individual rights are much needed; a liberal democracy is to be generally preferred to many other sorts. But not all other sorts, I think; liberal remains for me an adjective, meaning that I don't assume that our fate as human beings is simply the management of rancor and dissent (or, to stick with Locke, "inconveniences"). I don't see it a fate to be managed, but a problem to be solved--if fact, I think that we are always, metaphysically as well as politically, going to be about the business of solving the problem. The formation of communities, the ordering of publics, the broaching (and withdrawing, and modifying--of metaphysical claims (all three of which the Mormon church has had long experience with); that's all part of it, and complaints over the weakness or incoherence of attempts to do so within any given polity isn't so much frustrated illiberal minorities vocalizing their annoyance at the collapse of tradition, as it is democratic polities trying to find a new way of doing what democratic polities always do.

One last point. Perhaps in emphasizing that I see this problem-solving as constant (unlike some more apocalyptically inclined communitarians, for whom the problem of dissent has arisen because of a radical disruption/breakdown of the order of things, requiring an equally dramatic response), I sound a little like Reinhold Niebuhr, which in turn could make Damon--for whom Niebuhr is an essential thinker (see pp. 134-136)--decide that for all my romantic and religious bluster I'm really just as liberal as he,. After all, what's the real, on-the-ground difference, he might ask, between constant attempting to solve our divided condition, and accepting that all we can really do is just manage it? In all honesty, I'm not sure. A difference in hope, perhaps? A difference in belief? But if by the latter I mean religious belief, wouldn't that mean I've just argued that people who put their religious faith in things other than liberalism won't understand what liberalism has to teach about religious faith? Maybe...but I don't think so. I have a religious faith, and I've learned much from Damon's very good book. That has to count for something, doesn't it?

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Everybody Deserves to Be Jewish At Least Once in Their Lives

(Hat tip: Laura, of course!)

A Day of Philosophy, Theology, and Law

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

I've received a couple of queries about the conference I mentioned in passing in an earlier post. I suppose I could write at length about the presentations given at the conference, and what I learned, and who I met, and what the purpose of the conference was as a whole, but fortunately Robert Crouch, one of the conference participants and one of the geniuses behind the wonderful Feast Upon the Word blog, has already provided all the summaries and links anyone could need. So go look there, if you're interested.

Oh, all right, if you insist...my take is that it was a brilliant little scholarly affair, and those are some of the best kind. Look at the essential ingredients: start with a wise, broad-minded and remarkably generous benefactor, in the form of Jim Faulconer, who holds the Richard L. Evans Chair of BYU (and whose presence around the Bloggernacle is sorely missed), and whose support makes just about everything the Mormon Theology Seminar has accomplished possible. Add a half-dozen whip-smart, earnest, committed scholars willing to spend a while thinking about Mormon texts: Nate Oman, Jeremiah John, the aforementioned Robert, Joe and Karen Spencer, Kristine Haglund, and throw in Matt Bowman and Ben Huff as last minute additions. Pick a truly important, and genuinely curious text: Doctrine and Covenants 42, the revelation of "the Laws of the Church of Christ," a text dealing with the legal, social, and economic organization of the burgeoning church received by Joseph Smith in early 1831... and subsequently added to, edited, and extensively rethought and rewritten in the months and years which followed. Plunk these people down at a small church college in the beautiful scenery of southwestern Virginia. Add an Italian dinner to wrap up the day, and what have you got? A day that makes being a scholar worthwhile.

The proceedings of the conference will eventually be published, and I, for one, look forward to reading it. (Not the least reason for being my desire to see what my own paper actually ends up looking like.) D&C 42 gives rise to all sorts of fascinating questions: what does it mean to have the authority to teach? can a religious community organize itself in accordance with revealed, theocratic law, while simultaneously existing in the midst of a larger, pluralistic society? just what is the relationship between plainness and beauty? what kind of justice towards those less fortunate and in need do the laws of consecration and stewardship actually entail? does the contorted textual history of the revelation teach us anything about the meaning of "canonization"? if community is founded by law, what does that tell us--if anything--about the sort of associational life which God calls us to, which elsewhere in the scriptures is defined by grace and love? And this is all just scratching the surface.

Anyway, for me it was a great, thought-provoking, and more than slightly intimidating day. Hope I can do another one someday soon.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Greatest Soliloquy, Greatest Play

For Melissa's 38th birthday tonight we went out with a couple of friends to one of our favorite activities: an outdoor show by the Wichita Shakespeare Company. The play they put on was Macbeth, the greatest of Shakespeare's plays, so I definitely didn't want to miss it. They aren't a professional theater, and being shown outdoors, the sound was far from perfect. But I got to hear the greatest lines Shakespeare ever wrote, expressed pretty darn well, and for me, that's about all that matters. (Well, that and the banquet scene with Banquo's ghost; that's some devastating writing there.)

The queen, my lord, is dead.

She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

(Enter a Messenger)

Thou comest to use thy tongue; thy story quickly.

Gracious my lord,
I should report that which I say I saw,
But know not how to do it.

Well, say, sir.

As I did stand my watch upon the hill,
I look'd toward Birnam, and anon, methought,
The wood began to move.

Liar and slave!

Let me endure your wrath, if't be not so:
Within this three mile may you see it coming;
I say, a moving grove.

If thou speak'st false,
Upon the next tree shalt thou hang alive,
Till famine cling thee: if thy speech be sooth,
I care not if thou dost for me as much.
I pull in resolution, and begin
To doubt the equivocation of the fiend
That lies like truth: 'Fear not, till Birnam wood
Do come to Dunsinane:' and now a wood
Comes toward Dunsinane. Arm, arm, and out!
If this which he avouches does appear,
There is nor flying hence nor tarrying here.
I gin to be aweary of the sun,
And wish the estate o' the world were now undone.
Ring the alarum-bell! Blow, wind! come, wrack!
At least we'll die with harness on our back.

I had this whole speech memorized at one time. Tried to recite it along with the performance, but failed. Need to get back to the classics more often, I guess.

Abortion Matters. Still.

Excellent short essay in The New Republic today by Ed Kilgore, on how the dominant media narrative about the Tea Party movement consistently misses or underplays the fact that it is, whatever it's official (or unofficial) rhetoric, a movement deeply indebted to right-to-life thinking. Here's the best bit:

We have been told repeatedly that the Tea Party movement is all about economics and fiscal issues, and other than a couple of articles about how [Californian] Carly Fiorina's pro-life position is a problem for her in the general election, I've seen zero discussion of abortion this year in non-conservative publications, particularly as it affects the Republican primaries. Perhaps because the national media tend to be secular, we are persistently underestimating the role that abortion plays in right-wing politics. Yet it is key to understanding some of the zealous opposition that caused GOP primary voters to overthrow Mike Castle [in Delaware]. Unless you are an aficionado of conservative blogs, you probably didn't notice the deep opposition that many on the right were taking to Castle's pro-choice views....Even if...many conservative voters now think of climate change legislation as a serious threat to American freedom, it is worth remembering that the [right-to-life] movement considers abortion analogous to the Holocaust, and pro-choice pols to be enablers of monstrous evil--at worst conscious advocates of genocide.

This strikes close to home for me because I recognize myself in there. No, I don't think the fact that the Constitution has been interpreted so as to nationally require basic abortion rights makes the U.S. a participant in a Nazi-like Final Solution--that's bonkers. Despite all the science and philosophy (on both sides), the struggle between the integrity and privacy of women's choices versus the life and rights of an unborn child remains a constitutional and cultural morass, and that isn't likely to change anytime soon (certainly the welter of often contradictory state laws covering abortion gives proof to that). So no, I'm hardly an advocate of black-and-white responses here, as I hope my previous posts on the topic would show. But let's face it: I'm a socialist for heaven's sake, and yet I felt genuinely tempted to vote for John McCain, solely because of this issue.

People--particularly people opposed to the practice of abortion, and willing to try to legally as well as morally argue against it--have talked for a long time about Roe v. Wade and all the political reactions and social transformations since in apocalyptic, Civil War-type terms: that this is a dispute that can only end, or just continue on indefinitely, in the realm of tragedy. This is the way my friend Damon Linker talks about it in his new book The Religious Test (which I'll be reviewing next week). Damon used to be one of those who felt that overturning Roe v. Wade and returning the issue of abortion to the states would be a "solution" to the political problems it poses; he believes that no longer (persuaded in part by Ed Kilgore himself). "There is no political or legal way out of the conundrum of abortion," he concludes; "the competing moral claims are simply too intractable" (p. 168). His answer then, is to simply hold to a procedural liberal line of neutrality and wait, and hope, that eventually technological and economic developments will make abortion rare enough that as an issue it will disappear. I don't like that response--though I recognize its wisdom--for the same reason that Martin Luther King didn't like the idea of just waiting for the white moderate majority to come around to his point of view. Damon, and others, might observe that the "competing moral claims" of white and black citizens were not nearly so personal or "intractable" as those involved in the fate of a fetus, and I would agree with them...but then again, we are speaking with a half-century of hindsight. Who knows how the abortion struggle will be understood once Roe v. Wade reaches that distance? The Tea Party, at least, apparently has no intention of letting the next thirteen years or so until that anniversary is reached go by without keeping up the drumbeats, both nationally and in states across the country.

So I say Kilgore is right, at least in regards to his general thesis, and it is necessary to talk about abortion in public places, even if it is a fruitless, tragic language to use much of the time. However, if you are convinced, as Kilgore mostly seems to be, that the Tea Party is essentially just another expression of the same organized conservative movement which has challenged the postwar liberal establishment (which included at one time both the Republican and Democratic parties) over the decades, than there is no practical reason to think of any other "solution" to abortion besides organizing the opposition and keeping the abortion rights coalition together in the face of those who oppose it. My favored approach, following in the footsteps of my friend Matt Stannard, is to seek to talk to those whom the Tea Party talks to and for, at least partly; to articulate and promote a clearly "pro-life" position (though I still don't like the phrase) which is progressive, or at least "post-conservative." That there can be a voice for this position is undeniable, if those aggressively committed to both abortion-rights progressivism and neutral liberal secularism allow it to be heard. If they'd support it, would the Tea Party hear it? Probably not. But never forget that the Tea Party is, to the extent one follows Kilgore's analysis and notes their common animus to abortion rights, basically "the Homelanders," a crucial but still relatively small group of white, rural and exurban, libertarian-conservative Protestant voters, who have been able to punch above their weight through the GOP primaries of late. The larger culturally conservative environment through which the Tea Party organizes and operates is broader than that, and some of those in that environment may listen to such a voice. In time, maybe even more than just "some." Certainly Obama thought so--though he hasn't given and probably won't ever give the requirements of such a voice nearly the thought it deserves. As I commented when discussing Amy Sullivan's The Party Faithful some years back, I observed that if such respectful attention to the moral claims against abortion are to be ever anything more than a characteristic of one party or one movement only, it'll have to be shown to be, at least potentially, capable of incorporation into the intellectual infrastructure of the party in question. In other words, it must be the case that the Democrats--or my own Democratic Socialists of America, for that matter--can be seen as capable of supporting a "pro-life" argument, though admittedly a progressive one, as opposed to merely tolerating the occasional odd Democratic politician who with concerns about abortion rights, as well as personally opposing it.

Maybe that's just a silly hope, given present day electoral realities. The Democratic party won't change that much, and the Tea Party are doing good work in cleaning out most of the few pro-choice Republicans left on the national stage anyway. As I said above, I do see the wisdom of Damon's point, and in choosing to just hunker down with the liberal neutrality argument, and endure the tragic, perhaps endless argument over abortion as best one can. I'll keep trying to for some other other framing though, because that's just the way I am. Either way, in the end, Ed's point stands: ignoring the divisive fault-lines over abortion rights while trying to explain American politics is no way to do justice to the foot soldiers actually carrying signs and casting votes. Left or right, nobody should forget about that.

Friday Morning Videos: "Don't Stand So Close to Me '86"

I found myself listening to Certifiable: Live in Buenos Aires, the double-disc live recording which came out of The Police's big 2007-2008 reunion tour, this past week. I was stunned. I'd heard a lot of stuff, both good and bad, about their playing and shows during that tour, and Melissa and I did want to see them (they played in both Dallas and Kansas City; we might have been able to make it to either one). But between being short on disposable funds, and just not being super enthused by the prospect of seeing these guys 30 years after their prime as a band, we let both those opportunities pass us by. What a terrible move. If Certifiable is even just a remotely accurate reflection of what the reunited Police gave their fans, then I missed what probably would have been one of the greatest nights of live music of my life.

Well, life goes on; at least I have the cds. (Thanks, Scott!) Listening to their recreation of old hits puts me in mind of the last time they tried that, just before they gave up on the band all together. I've shown their earlier video of this, arguably their single greatest song as a group, before...and I still think I prefer the looser, rougher sound of the 1980 original. But this "new" (that is, only twenty-five years old!) version, with Copeland playing around with the drum machine, and much of the early jazz-reggae stylings all smoothed out, still packs a tremendous punch. I can remember sitting on the grass under a tree somewhere on the BYU campus back in 1987, listening to this on my Walkman, then rewinding, and listening to it again and again and again. Sting would have approved, I think.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Led Zeppelin, Godfathers of the Remix?

I wonder. I see to recall an interview with Robert Plant--something I saw on PBS I believe; maybe from that Rock & Roll series they produced 15 years ago?--in which he said, if I remember correctly, "Everything goes back to Son House; since them, we've all just been beggars and thieves." An exaggeration, perhaps, but I guess there's some truth to it.

(Hat tip: Laura.)

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Being in Wichita...

...means, among other things, that the odds of my being able to see this film--which I heard about a while ago, but the trailers for which I've only just become aware of--are practically nil. Unfortunately.

I just returned this past week from a conference--not APSA, about which there is always much to say, and which is always intellectually fulfilling and challenging all on its own. But no, this conference was much smaller, and was built around a small group of people who were using, for the most part, the best tools which philosophy and theology provide to examine a set of very specific (and, to those of us who are members of the faith group in question, very important) texts and questions. References to Badiou, Agamben, Gadamer and more abounded. I found myself, for the most part, completely outclassed. For the truth is, despite having written a dissertation on Charles Taylor, and read more about German romanticism and hermeneutics, via Herder and Schleiermacher and Hegel and Dilthey and more, than likely I'll ever be able to remember, much less be able to productively make use of, I'm not a continental philosopher, and I never will be.

And yet, it--"it" meaning addressing how we perceive and experience ourselves and one another "authentically" (using the term philosophically) when our "life-world" (same here) has been structured by "atomizing" (once again) forces both economic and cultural--still really appeals to me. Many different philosophical approaches can address these same existential issues--but in the Western tradition, at least (in the Confucian context, by contrast, things are much different), it seems to me that you have to turn to the Continental tradition of phenomenology to really articulate what is going on. And that is what I do, even if not explicitly. It comes out in how I talk about community, about simplicity, about technology and politics and work. Heidegger's essential questions--about embodiment and truth and individuality and society in a postmodern, post-industrial world--reverberate through my thoughts on religion and Marx and language and gardening and Canada and more. I don't really have the smarts or the patience to ask and follow through with serious questions of ontology and epistemology any more, assuming I ever did...but if I do find myself caught up in such questions, it is almost invariably the language of Heidegger and being and meaning and care which comes most naturally, if clumsily, to my mind. If someone had asked me questions which this film asks--such as, what is the significance of mastering a tool, and what does that tell us about our existence as tool-bearing creatures--I suspect I'd answer them the way of Herbert Dreyfus appears to so do, though probably with only a tenth of the eloquence.

Which I suppose is just a long-winded way of saying that if anyone has a spare copy of this film on dvd, please send it to me, as I don't imagine a documentary of philosophical reflections on what it means to lose oneself, and so doing uncover oneself, through an active engagement with one's Dasein will make it to our local Warren Theaters anytime soon.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Bicycling and the Simple (Socialist?) Life

[Cross-posted at Front Porch Republic]

Nearly two years ago, John Buass, an intrepid fellow blogger and bike commuter (more: a genuine cycling activist) here in Wichita, shared with me an invitation he'd received to write something for a book tentatively titled "Bicycling and Philosophy." I ended up sending in an abstract, because the notion of writing for one of these "[Blank] and Philosophy"-type volumes that I see all over the place appealed to me. As it turned out, the editors liked my proposal, asked me to turn it into an essay...and now, at long last, the book is available at your local Borders. I kind of feel bad, because I only learned about this whole project through John, yet his name is nowhere to be found in the final volume. (Let me give you my complimentary copy John, at least!)

If you absolutely can't wait, you can read my chapter here. Not the best bit of writing I've ever done, I think, but not bad overall. This passage is probably the heart of my claim, which is that choosing to make a bicycle one's primary mode of transportation (which, of course, also means organizing one's life around, and getting involved in one's community so as to make possible, such a choice in the first place) is, in the complex and automobile-centric societies in which nearly all of us live, a complicated one...and yet that very complicatedness is part of what makes simplicity possible:

What’s the point of trying to live simply? I would say the point is to exist in an environment which isn't likely to multiply out of one's control, making one simultaneously dependent upon and divorced from those complex forces, actors, and decisions which shape one's options. That is, a world where one can see clear through from basic personal choices to more or less dependable results, both personal and public. Of course, the world is never really going to be like that: human life is an often random, frequently tragic, always unpredictable existence....But nonetheless, some environments lend themselves to being "enclosed" more easily than others, and said enclosure doesn't just mean retreating from reality: sometimes it means cultivating the better parts of it.

For example, look at your bicycle. It is, to be sure, an impressive and demanding piece of technology, with brakes and sprockets and derailleurs all needing to be properly tended to. But that finite number of parts are all available in open sight, requiring but also readily responding to simple, everyday, basic acts of maintenance. Compare that to the kind of complex, often hidden mechanisms which lay buried, sometimes inaccessible, under the hood of a car, requiring expert (and expensive) work to keep in running order....This is not to say that the mechanics of the internal combustion engine cannot be “enclosed,” to a degree mastered, and thus made reliably responsive to the engagement of any given driver; cars, too, can be made “simple.” But it is much more difficult, and thus much more unlikely, that the typical driver will be able to reach that point. With bicycles, simplicity, the ability to see a project through from beginning to end, is much more in reach.

I've written a great deal about "simplicity" over the years, some of which made it into this essay. As the years have gone by, it's become more and more clear to me that while my ideas about simplicity are certainly grounded in a kind of aesthetic appreciation of the freedom a life only minimally-troubled by complexity makes possible, as well as an environmental desire to avoid the anticipated and costly impacts which ever-expanding (and usually ever-commercializing) complex economic systems involve, my real motivation is strictly political. A simple life, in my view, is one that is, as much as possible, self-sustaining, in a word sovereign--meaning not wholly dependent upon forces and actors (technological, economic, social, etc.) beyond oneself and one's own immediate community. A bicycle doesn't automatically bring such a life into existence. But I'm not the only one who has taken to riding a bicycle and grasped the connections which it reveals.

If I could write the essay over again, I would definitely remember to include a quote which I left out before: "Socialism can only arrive by bicycle," a quote attributed to the Chilean socialist politician Jose Antonio Viera Gallo. What he could be talking about there? Maybe the same thing Gandhi was talking about when he described the spinning wheel as the crucial tool of political independence for India. Developing and institutionalizing a broadly available and generally basic means of production which was entirely capable of being managed by ordinary people would have dramatic consequences for the economy of India, which was then essentially just a component in the larger complex system which was the British Empire. Similarly, turning to a technology and an attendant way of organizing one's transportation needs and one's places of work and living which is, on the one hand, enormously empowering for the poor, but on the other hand, also not so easily dominated by all the industries and interests and commercial imperatives which our car-dependent societies demonstrate well...that would be radically simplifying as well. Complicated, to be sure, and given the compromises which come along with modern bourgeois life, never likely to be complete. But every bit helps. Not to help bring into existence a state of bicycling fascists, but to help bring into existence a society where more people can get along and get to where they need to go without traveling so far, so expensively, so riskily, so congestedly--and, when one's car starts making that little pinging noise which drives you crazy and you have to take it in to the shop and you get the bill afterward for some seemingly (but not nearly) simple problem, so frustratingly! If that's socialism, well, sign me up. Call it "autarchy" if you will, but in the end, whatever the different philosophical routes involved, the results are much the same: you arrive at place where independence is connected to more people being equally familiar with their place and their capabilities, thus making it even more meaningful and fair. With some smart civic planning (some bike lanes and paths, some closed off city centers, and maybe, just maybe, some bike racks at public places for Pete's sake!), some personal commitment, and some luck, it's possible for people to get away from automobile dependency, to rediscover the virtue of walking to school or work or church and almost anywhere else. And, when those things are a little too far away, despite your best efforts...that's why God invented the bike (and why smart countries make as much use of it as they can).

Of course, in framing my fondness for my bicycle (I'm pretty certain I've passed 5000 miles by now in my regular commute from home to work over the years here in Wichita) in these "foreign" and "socialist" ways, I risk losing whatever gains bicycling has made in the U.S. by sending up (literal?) read flags, bound to attract defensive and ignorant attacks against the idea of making America more "European" and therefore less attached to its supposedly God-given (and destructive) car-culture. Well, look. It's undeniable that, in a country the size of the America, bicycling is going to remain a minor component in the lives of the great majority of families (we certainly haven't put as many miles on our bikes as we have on our Toyota Sienna!). So what is the harm of recognizing that if, in certain times and certain places, you have enough people who recognize the appeal of a simpler, less expensive, more self-sustaining way of life, choose to adopt it, and want to make it easier for others to adopt as well. None at all, I think. To shy away from such confrontations isn't just ideological cowardice; even aside from such "culture war" concerns, the truth is unless people stand up for the compromise which bicycling promises, the bureaucrats will win (keep up the good fight, Jacob!). Very simply (in more ways than one!), the bicycle works. So read the book, and if you live somewhere you can ride, do so. Who knows? Could be your happiness depends upon it.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Friday Morning Videos: "Valley Road"

Off to another conference this weekend, this one at a small college nestled in the mountains and valleys of Virginia. And so, of course...

A dopey video, I know; it probably cost all of about $300 to shoot. But I played this song to death on my old cassette copy back in the day. Plus, I have a friend from Virginia who at one time claimed, rather persuasively, to be able to identify ever single location Hornsby and his band used while filming this around Williamsburg, so that must count for something.

Monday, September 06, 2010

APSA Wrap-Up

I got back from another APSA annual meeting, this year in Washington DC, late Saturday night. It was a great few days, as they almost always are. Perhaps someday such conferences will distract or bore or tire me, but for now, they still jazz me up, leaving me in a swirl of ideas and ambitions and reflections. Herewith, a quick wrap-up:

Bloggers seen:

Six years on, and with the blogging world much changed and probably on a definite downhill slide, I still love to put faces to names. This year, I was able to spend some time chatting and/or taking lunch with Jacob Levy, J. Nelson-Seawright, Laura McKenna, and Camassia (though at that latter gathering the hoped for appearance of Eve Tushnet and Lee McCracken didn't come about). I also ran into Patrick Deneen, Mark Mitchell, and passed Daniel Drezner and Chris Lawrence in panels and in the hallways. Apparently, there was a major poli-sci/journalist/blogger panel which I completely missed, so there went my chance to see a lot of famous online names in the flesh. Oh well. You can't see everyone.

Publishers spoken to:

Good, if brief conversations, with folks from Lexington Books, Routledge, Princeton, and the University of Kentucky. I'm working on a book with another scholar dealing with various non-Western and comparative theoretical approaches to the state of nature debate in political philosophy. Fascinating, no? Well, we're pleased with it. We'll see where it goes from here.

Workshops run:

I was in charge of the nearly-yearly "Comparative Political Theory" working groups this APSA. The attendance wasn't what I would have liked, but new contacts were made, and some good discussions about research agendas and teaching approaches were had. And that's what such meetings are all about, no?

Panels attended:

Two excellent and one very good panel stand out: a thought-provoking and eye-opening discussion of Chinese and Confucian traditions of constitutionalism (good preparation for a conference I'll be attending in Hong Kong this December), a fascinating set of comments on an upcoming--and must-by--book by Robert Putnam and David Campbell (best line from which came from Bill Galston: "Americans don't attend church as often as they say they do, and the French attend church more often than say they do; this is because most Americans feel guilty when they don't go to church, while most French feel guilty when they do"); and a wide-ranging set of papers talking about the application of Alexis de Tocqueville to numerous problems and situations (oh--and another blogger: I finally met Susan McWilliams there too).

Finally, books bought:

As always, I didn't have enough money to get everything I wanted, but it's always good to come home with must-buy-soon list. As it was, I ended up with a couple of classics, some new scholarship, some popular stuff, some deeply discounted on-sale stuff, and one freebie (it was a gallery copy).

The Limits of Power, Andrew J. Bacevich
The Communitarian Constitution, Beau Breslin
Bad Samaritans, Ha-Joon Chang
Shop Class as Soulcraft, Matthew B. Crawford (a book I've written about before, but didn't own a copy of)
Integral Pluralism, Fred Dallmayr (because I buy everything by Fred)
Constituent Moments, Jason Frank
Lament for a Nation, George Grant
The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It, Richard Hofstadter
Debating Moral Education, Elizabeth Kiss and J. Peter Euben, eds.
What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?, Kevin Mattson (read this one on the flights home: a great book on the late 1970s, Jimmy Carter, and a crucial missed opportunity for political and moral change and leadership, the specific topic of which I've blogged about several times before)
The Mind and the Market, Jerry Z. Muller
Bob Dylan in America, Sean Wilentz
1688: The First Modern Revolution, Steven Pincus

What I wasn't able to get, but now really want to, include: Sagehood, Stephen Angle; The Eyes of the People, Jeffrey Green; The Making of the Political, Leigh Jenco; The Anti-Enlightenment Tradition, Zeev Sternhell; Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal, Tristram Stuart; and, as mentioned above, American Grace, Robert Putnam and David Campbell. Anyone who happens to have access to free or promotional copies of any of the above should feel free to send them to me immediately.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Friday Morning Videos: "Pink Houses"

Labor Day weekend? America's holiday tribute to the legendary, arguably mythical home-owning patriotic working man? Sounds like it's time for John Cougar Mellencamp to me.